On Tuesday, the mayor and deputy mayor of Fort Smith presented a formal response to the Aurora College Foundational Review to the Standing Committee on Social Development (SCOSD) at the Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife.

The Aurora College Foundational Review Report was released in May and recommended that the college transforms into a Northern Canada Polytechnic University (NCPU) over the next several years.

It was also recommended that the main campus of the new post-secondary institution be located in Yellowknife. Aurora College is currently headquartered in Fort Smith.

The City of Yellowknife officially endorsed the review’s recommendations in June.

But the town of Fort Smith has made it quite clear that it does not.

Back in June, the town created the special committee in response to the Aurora College Foundation Review report, “to address the many deficiencies found throughout the Foundational Review,” a press release from the town states.

“The Town of Fort Smith fundamentally disagrees with some of the findings and recommendations of the Aurora College Foundational Review, which is based on poor methodology, flimsy statistics, and doesn’t impartially present the facts of post-secondary education in the NWT. The recommendation from the Foundational Review to move the Headquarters to Yellowknife appears to be pre-determined and driven by a political agenda, ” a press release announcing the creation of the committee states.

The committee is made up of Mayor Napier-Buckley and Councillors Ron Holtorf, Anna Kikoak, Brenda Tuckey, and some members of the public, and was responsible for crafting the town’s formal response to the review.

The formal response presented to the legislative assembly on Tuesday contains six themes critiquing the review’s accuracy, validity and recommendations and include the research methodology, “decentralization service model, trends in post-secondary education, lack of knowledge about Aurora College, direct and indirect impact and costs.”

The town’s response also has eight recommendations for the legislative assembly to consider, a key one being that the college remains headquartered in Fort Smith.

“We want to ensure that Fort Smith continues to be the centre of post-secondary education for the NWT,” says Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley in a statement.

The report

The town has yet to specify which parts of the Aurora College report they take issue with, but page 77 of the report describes various infrastructure and safety concerns at the college’s Thebacha Campus in Fort Smith.

There are no security cameras on the Fort Smith campus or residences, and “a number of significant (violent) incidents have occurred in the residence as well as a break-in and vandalism at the campus building,” the report states. According to the report, part of the challenge is where students are from and the historical clash of “northerners versus southerners.”

The report states that Breynat Hall, the main residence, is old and “outdated and does not conform to generally accepted student housing standards,” and it is unclear whether the college is responsible or the Department of Infrastructure.

A senior communications advisor at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) said that Breynat Hall residence is an ECE asset that belongs to Aurora College, but maintenance services are provided by the Department of Infrastructure.”

The Department of Infrastructure has yet to respond to questions about whether these maintenance services include security, or whether there are plans to renovate the college residence.

Breynat Hall is also labelled as a residential school under the terms of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

“This historical fact contributes to the general opinion that students do not want to attend the Fort Smith campus for their studies,” the report states.

When asked if the government anticipated this reaction after turning a former residential school into a college residence, ECE said that “Breynat Hall was established as a residence in the 1970s to house students attending the Adult Vocational Training Centre (now Thebacha Campus). In communities with minimal existing infrastructure, repurposing a building associated with a residential school into something positive for the community is consistent with the approach taken in other jurisdictions,” and gave the Inuvik Community Greenhouse as an example of another such building.

“The Town of Fort Smith has always been a strong partner to post-secondary education in the NWT and the Town wants to work pro-actively with the Government of the Northwest Territories to ensure the evolution and transformation of post-secondary education happens in a way that benefits all NWT communities for a sustainable, decentralized future,” says mayor Napier-Buckley.

Decision to move headquarters ‘not about centralization’ says education minister

When the report was first released in May, Minister of Education, Culture and Employment Caroline Cochrane said the recommendation to move the headquarters is not about centralization but “developing centres of excellence.”

“One of the critiques we had was that Aurora College tries to be everything for everyone and that’s evidenced in some of their campuses,” said minister Cochrane.

“So we’re looking at, what is the specialization within each community at their campuses and how do we grow on those. I want a destination post-secondary. I don’t want to just address the needs of the residents… I also want people to come here from across Canada,” the minister said.

The GNWT is in the process of developing a response to each recommendation in the review with feedback from the Standing Committee on Social Development.

That response is anticipated to be made public sometime this fall.